The recent rise of first-person ‘redemption essays’ by abusive men has been a painful pill to swallow for many women — especially considering that at least 81% of women have experienced some form of sexual abuse in their lifetimes. While many writers and editors cling to the notion of free of speech as a way to shield themselves from backlash for problematic content, freedom of speech can protect no one from the consequences of their words. And though these essays attempt to inject nuance and sympathy for atrocious acts, the editors who allow these pieces to be published are facing consequences for their decisions.
Following a green light from former editor Ian Buruma, an essay entitled “Reflections From A Hashtag,” written by Canadian former radio host Jian Ghomeshi, was published in the October 11 issue of The New York Review of Books. The essay gave Ghomeshi a public platform to muse on the ways his life has changed after getting fired for multiple accusations of sexual assault back in 2014. The Ghomeshi essay was published on the heels of another essay, “Exile,” written by former radio host and accused harasser John Hockenberry for Harper's.
Even after having ample time to reflect on their actions, neither Ghomeshi’s nor Hockenberry’s essays exhibit any meaningful form of accountability for their actions — or any hint of empathy for the women whose lives they have destroyed. Both personal essays serve primarily as an opportunity for both men to wax poetic about their falls from grace, which rightfully brought questions about the judgement of the media gatekeepers who decided to run these pieces in the first place.
Recently, however, these editors have been asked to publicly explain their reasoning behind publishing such pieces. Slate recently published a Q&A with Buruma about his decision to run Ghomeshi's essay. Similarly, Anna Maria Tremonti's CBC Radio Show interviewed Rick MacArthur, the president and publisher of Harper's, about his choice to run Hockenberry's piece.
Isaac Chotiner, the Slate reporter who interviewed Buruma, proved himself to be a great male ally, asking scathing but fair questions about Buruma's thought process which he, at times, had discernible trouble defending. MacArthur was also widely criticised after he attempted to use Hockenberry's physical disability as a reason for his innocence and tried to distinguish between assault and harassment. MacArthur's argument swiftly fell apart as host Tremonti probed him on these questionable definitions of sexual harassment. And, while both instances were uncomfortable to witness, they demonstrate the potential for the media space to hold itself to account and for media professionals to step up and be good allies to survivors.
Freedom of speech allows us to speak our minds, but it will never absolve us of responsibility for the damage our words may create.
Following the backlash around Ghomeshi's essay, Buruma is out of a job. The disgraced editor spoke to Vrij Nederland of his departure, saying he was "convicted on Twitter, without any due process." While Buruma is not the first person to claim a 'trial by Twitter,' it is Buruma's own actions — not the social media platform — that's to blame for his downfall. Buruma told the CBC that he resigned. Though he says he still stands by his editorial decision, it's evident that an important shift is happening. These recent events demonstrate that when we hold media gatekeepers accountable for the content they choose to run, powerful social change can occur.
We live in a culture that's obsessed the idea of free speech. But free speech has never meant an unrestricted ability to speak without consequence or criticism — something media professionals should understand better than anyone. Freedom of speech allows us to speak our minds, but it will never absolve us of responsibility for the damage our words or editorial decisions may create.
Ultimately, we may never be able to prevent stories like Ghomeshi's and Hockenberry's from being published. But, we must also realise that, as triggering as they may be, these confessional essays do provide us with an opportunity to keep important conversations going while learning about accountability. So long as narratives that elevate abusers without consideration of their victims are given a platform, we absolutely can — and must — hold those who publish them accountable.